Pierre Bourdieu’s “Racism of Intelligence”.

Critically evaluate Bourdieu’s ‘Racism of Intelligence’ thesis with reference to access to education and the relationship between education and work. Give examples to illustrate your arguments.

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) stated in his ‘Racism of Intelligence’ thesis that “IQ racism is a racism of the dominant class” (Bourdieu, 1993:177) and that the reproduction of the dominant class depends on the “transmission of cultural capital.” (Ibid) It is argued that this in turn provides justification for the social order in which they dominate. This essay will look at the ways in which ‘habitus’ and capital has control over the accessibility into education and the relationship they have with socialisation in to the world of work. This essay will draw on work from contemporary sociologists to critically evaluate Bourdieu’s thesis in relation to education and work, primarily in a contemporary Irish context.

Habitus and Educational Performance.

Bourdieu had strong ideas linking habitus (environment of primary socialisation) and education together, which are crucial in the understanding of how ‘racism of intelligence’ is born and thrives within society. Social capital refers to the networks of friends one keeps and the contacts held within an institution or area of expertise. This relates closely to habitus, meant as the environment into which an individual is born into. For example, a child born into a family of Doctors whose friends and associates are Doctors and medically trained would be much more likely to go into medicine than someone who hasn’t been raised in this habitus. The language and terminology of the environment would make it much easier for someone to enter this world with an already base understanding. A child born into a family of musicians, (non –academics) would be more inclined to move in creative, musical circles from a young age and be comfortable with this environment. The habitus is the first stage of the socialisation process which education then completes in the second stage, preparing the student for the world of work.

Returning to the analogy of the family of Dr’s, the environment would have been filled with books, quiet time, long work hours and the enjoyment of economic stability and cultural and social capital of what would be termed as higher class living. It was suggested in research conducted by Whelan and Whelan (1984) “that access to educational opportunity was a major factor in the ‘inheritance’ of class inequality and that this pattern was particularly marked in Ireland” (Tovey et al, 2003: 216) This distinction on habitus was followed up in a study by Breen and Whelan in 1996 which revealed that:

Despite increasing overall levels of educational attainment the pattern of

educational social fluidity has remained unaltered. There is a continuing

strong link between class origins and educational attainment.

(Tovey et al, 2003:216)

Over half of the children, born to parents in the higher professional category left schooling with a Level 3 Honours or more, compared to only 4% of those coming from families of unskilled parents. It is clear that habitus does indeed play a vital role into the attainment of education and being able to secure solid payment later on within the work place. There is also a strong link between unemployment and a lack of qualifications.  The trend in Ireland has persisted in line with international experience: “whereas the proportion of all social classes attending higher levels of education has increased the relative advantage associated with higher class origins persists.” (Tovey et al, 2003:219) This is a significant area which the recession has provided more evidence for.

Capital Influences on education and work performance.

Bourdieu saw stratification (in conflict theory) arising through a power struggle based on the location of different groups and the elements of capital they have; be it economic, social, cultural or symbolic, of which economic and social were the most apparent within education. (Bottero: 2005: 139) . High economic capital which comprises of wealth, income and property owned are said to contribute to career choice and areas of education in which one can aspire to as well as those ‘better off’ being in a position to enjoy the cultural aspects of capital than someone with lower economic capital. Cultural capital comprises of tastes; being of foods, the arts, leisure activities, music and holiday interests. Bourdieu argued that economic and cultural are closely linked and apparent within both education and work settings. The third group, social capital comprises of social networks and contacts and the fourth and last area of Bourdieu’s argument of stratification has been described as symbolic; that is ones reputation and respect within a certain field. (Bottero, 2005: 140). Each area is interdependent on the other but are important when reviewing Bourdieu’s thesis as it gives a solid understanding in to how the racism of the elites govern accessibility within the education sector as well as the connection this in turn has with the world of work.

Bourdieu makes reference to language as being a gauge of measuring intelligence and in this way segregating classes in educational performance. Being brought up in an environment with access to books and the social interactions that govern a certain area of expertise, be it medical or the arts gives a head start to those wanting to pursue a certain career and a measure of moulded intelligence. “…,it is the language of ‘leaders’ who feel themselves to be legitimised by ‘intelligence’ and who dominate a society founded on discrimination…” (Bourdieu, 1998: 178)  which refers to the segregation that occurs between class structure and stratification of capital. Bourdieu continues to state that intelligence in society is based on “the possession of titles that presume a guarantee of intelligence. An access to positions of economic power have taken the place of earlier titles such as titles of property and nobility.” (Bourdieu, 1998:177)This crucial  aspect of ‘credentials’ and the ability of this elite group to ‘hoard’ the access into higher educational and work positions through the control of entry gates, be it via a point based system or by interview encourages these social distinctions and designations to remain ‘stuck’. By this nature they “..will do much to ensure that some form of credentialism continues to operate” (Bills, 2004: 203) Which in turn creates a larger divide in society.

The Education System.

The Irish education system is based on a point system and intelligence or IQ testing. IQ testing is based on psychology which is argued by Bourdieu in his thesis “..which are the source of IQ racism, the kind of racism specific to ‘elites’ whose position is bound up with educational success…” (Bourdieu, 1998:178) and is therefore not compatible with changing the system into a fairer model for social inclusion but serves to do the opposite, not taking into account different ways of learning and the individuals capacity to so. Differences of ‘intelligence’ , ‘talent’ and measuring of intelligence is determined by the elite who are themselves, by nature of the fact that they are themselves a product of the institutionalisation of the educational system only fuelling social exclusion more. Psychology emerged with the Binet –Simon IQ test at the same time as the arrival of the educational system, compulsory schooling and with it a legitimisation in advance academic verdicts and thus legitimising the tests themselves.  From an economic perspective Ireland has recently seen an upsurge of IQ racism with the cutting of grants and squeezing the financial ability to be able to complete education if not already stable in finances. This, in turn creates a further divide in those being able to attend higher education and fulfils the stratification hypothesis of Bourdieu as earlier discussed. Before the recession hit the system had found itself in a situation that had not occurred before; on a social level it “Found the system confronted with the arrival of people who lacked the socially constituted dispositions that is tacitly demands.” (Bourdieu, 1998:178) And shines the light on the snobbery and elitism more.

The curriculum and methodology of University teaching (mainstream Arts primarily), only allows for a certain type of learner; those with more kinaesthetic (the practical doing in learning) traits, more suited to a range of hands on approaches find it hard to integrate and work within the constraints of the curriculum which need writing skills to progress. Often labelled dyslexic these individuals are referred to the disability department who then provide the necessary support that will enable a conforming to the curriculum which is required. This, it could be argued does not help in preparing the student for the world of work where the necessary skills required may be outside of their individual capacities when they are actually suited to a different style of learning and working. Conforming to the social pressures of third level education can prove to be an uphill battle for these people and a constant source of stress which is not accounted for outside of conventional thinking. The rigid methodologies used don’t take into account individual needs or scope for legitimate, creative and more varied modes of learning. This mainstream socialisation through third level education reflects the “ever-rising educational requirements for jobs” (Bills, 2004: 200) and stifles any nurturance of a learner with different abilities, outside of the norm of conventional education to fulfil their potential and in turn, change the system of education and work.  Bills state that there is little argument that the role of schools and higher education is “in preparing and credentialing people to work.” (Bills, 2004:200), and work in the mainstream ethos. Public support for this conventional style of education is necessary for the legitimacy to survive and as long as Universities and colleges are seen as “engines for economic growth” (Bills,2004:200) the funding will continue to be made available, even if only to the elite classes as we have seen. The value on apprenticeship has lessened, however Ireland may see a resurgence of importance placed on practical skills making a comeback. During the Celtic tiger (a term used to describe the economic boom in Ireland from 1995-2007) value was placed on IT skills and whilst the multi-national corporations were here, money was made available for training and the economy boomed. However, as the recession hit, Ireland is now experiencing young, educated people lining the social welfare queues, out of work and with not many options after the multi-national companies withdrew from Irish shores. It is very clear that during this period Ireland saw the education market being governed by the workplace and the interdependency between the two became strikingly evident.


The competition to secure fewer and fewer jobs continues to get tighter and the call is for more and more credentials to be gained. Bills states that “Young people entering today’s workplace without academic credentials enter it disarmed” (Bills, 2004:200). As multitudes of educated and qualified graduates leave college with their degrees the workplace is in a prime position to pick and choose and so the competitive nature of education and the work place does not diminish but is encouraged. As a result, migration of the educated to countries whose economies are more stable and where there is a better chance of work is offered, and taken. Education is subordinate to the workplace and “..if the workplace expresses a demand for people with skills x, y and z, schools will find a way to provide x, y and z.” (Bills, 2004:202). Tailor made to the requirements of business and a system which is purely economically driven. It seems as though values are back to front. When health professionals are few on the ground, recruitments are made from overseas and bursaries created to train more Drs, Nurses and Midwives but fewer places for students are seen to train. However, as a nation value is placed on economics and  the forefront of decision making which reflects itself in bankers and politicians being amongst the highest paid in the country.

Trust in the education system remains high within the workplace and, although there has been a new wave of private training organisations emerging from the Celtic tiger conventional credentials still remain high and wield the power that governs mainstream education. Employers are gaining interest in the diversity of skills and life experience but still third level credentials and competition remains. It is not unusual to find two employees doing the same job, one paid much higher than the other because of credentials accredited to their name; not by their ability to do the job. This cultural snobbery or as Bourdieu puts it, racism is a direct example of how the stratification of class division is kept alive. Bills states in his book that this stratification process will take one of two ways, one being of vertical expansion, seen with people going to college for longer to obtain not only a degree but a Masters and PHD. Or in horizontal differentiation which is seen in the establishing of special schools for gifted children and an education with a diversity that reaches far and wide, enabling employers to choose from a range of qualifications, experience and skills. “Where these credentials are generated may shift in the future, but the credential society is likely to persist.” (Bills, 2004:209).  An  movement that is very interesting to observe and more so in the coming years.

Max Weber stated that the “iron cage”, (a metaphor for the increased rationalisation inherent in Western capitalistic societies) was in danger of stifling creativity and change within. In this light and on reflection of Bourdieu’s thesis discussed, the inter dependence between education and work are clearly at play, both true in Weber’s analogy and Bourdieu’s. There is a clear relationship between education and work and the racism of intelligence. So where do we go from here? Bourdieu stated that sociologists “…should study those in elite positions, Doctors, Psychologists, Psychiatrists and the role they play in naturalising social differences.” (Bourdieu, 1998:178). In order to initiate change and overcome the ever rising class division within colleges, universities and the work force change must happen from within.








Bills, D. (2004) The Sociology of Education and Work. Blackwell Publishing. UK. Print.

Bottero, W. (2005) Stratification: Social Division and Inequality. London and New York: Routeledge. Print.

Bourdieu, P. (1998) “The Racism of Intelligence”. Sociology in Question. Trans. Nice, R. Sage Publications. London. Print.

Tovey, H., Share, P. (2003) A Sociology of Ireland. Gill and MaCmillan. Dublin 12. Print.










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